THE luxurious country estate of former Daily Express owner Lord Beaverbrook is at the centre of a £60million planning battle.
Campaigners have launched a bid for a judicial review to try to stop Grade II listed Cherkley Court and its 380 acres of beautiful countryside being turned into a hotel and a golf course.
The Cherkley Campaign says planning permission was narrowly granted last year "against the strongest and clearest of recommendations to refuse by planning officers".
It says the development is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Green Belt which are supposed to be protected from "unnecessary, irreversible and inappropriate development except in very special circumstances".
And, with the backing of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, it has begun proceedings for a Judicial Review in the High Court of Justice.
The battle centres on developer Longshot's plans to turn Cherkley Court, a French chateau-style property built in 1894 near Leatherhead, Surrey, into a 48-bedroom hotel with spa and restaurants.
It also proposes an 18-hole golf course designed by top American golfer Tom Watson at the "Beaverbrook Golf Club" on the estate on the North Downs near Leatherhead in Surrey.
But campaigners say the golf club and course will be set on 205 acres of precious chalk grassland and impose an artificial environment on an historic landscape.
They say it is "impossible to argue" that there is a need for any more golf courses in this area because there are already 49 within 10 miles and 118 within 15 miles of the site.
Planning permission was controversially granted last year by Mole Valley District Council. Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles declined to call in the application and left it to the local authorities
Cherkley Campaign chairman Tim Harrold said: "We are confident we have a strong case and that it is in the public interest to mount a legal challenge.
"In our view if this permission is allowed to stand it will set a dreadful precedent not only here but for the Green Belt as a whole and on any protected landscape and ecologically sensitive site across the country.
"We do not consider that it is in the public interest for this development to go ahead and therefore we have now lodged our claim with the High Court for a judicial review of the Council's decision."
The director of CPRE's Surrey branch, Andy Smith, said the scheme is an important national test case.
He said: "We are delighted to support the Cherkley Campaign in its attempt to secure a Judicial Review of MVDC's decision about Cherkley Court.
"We continue to believe that a golf course is an inappropriate development in this especially sensitive landscape which comprises precious farmland and wildflower meadows. A golf course will effectively ‘suburbanise' a beautiful rural location.
"In our view, MVDC's decision was arbitrary and it lacked coherence and justification in relation to national and local planning policies.
"This view is shared by CPRE's National Office, which has been following developments here with great interest.
"We believe that the decision sets a potentially dangerous precedent. Any supposed ‘economic benefits' resulting from a leisure development at Cherkley would be vastly outweighed by the environmental damage. This was the wrong decision and a Judicial Review would give us the chance to reverse it."
MVDC confirmed that permission was given despite its planning officers recommending it be refused.
However, it gave consent subject to 61 planning conditions being satisfied.
Longshot said it has been advised by a leading planning barrister that any legal challenge against the scheme was "hopeless".
Longshot director Ollie Vigors said he hoped the complex will open in 2015.
He said Longshot had consulted the local community for more than a year and had received more than 200 letters of support.
He stressed that the current Lord Beaverbrook is "very supportive".
He said the majority of the estate is not in the AONB. Only two holes of the proposed golf course would be in the AONB.
Mr Vigors admitted there are many golf courses in the area but said: "We are trying to build something that does not exist in this area - this is about the whole package - a golf course, spa, hotel, cookery school and restaurants."
Longshot's website states: "Longshot's vision for the whole estate is to create a 'world class' 5 Star Hotel including the highest quality Food & Beverage operations, a Health Club & Spa and a Cookery School. In addition an exclusive private members Golf Course would be created utilising the natural contours of the open landscape.
"At the Mole Valley Council Development Control committee meeting on 2nd May 2012 the application was permitted by a majority of 13 votes to 6. "The Secretary of State has decided there are no grounds to justify calling in our application. Mole Valley District Council will now complete the paperwork needed to issue the formal planning permission.
"We are delighted that our proposal has won the support of so many people; from the cross party support of local councillors to the hundreds of residents in Mole Valley who have written to express their support."
Canadian-born Lord Beaverbrook bought Cherkley Court in 1911 and lived there until his death aged 85 in 1964. He has been dubbed the first baron of Fleet Street after building the Daily Express into a mass circulation newspaper. He also served as a minister in the British Government during both World Wars.